July 11 1940–Almonte Gazette
Mr. A. Anrep of Almonte, has received a letter from Mr. Ewing Nelson, who spent some time at Mr. Anrep’s home in Almonte several years ago. Mr. Nelson is now with the 10th Infantry Brigade, Anti-Tank/ Company in England. He went through the dreadful retreat to Dunkirk and the subsequent disembarkation he writes as follows:— .
My dear Governor:
It is just good fortune that I am able to sit here and write a letter to you once again because for over three weeks we have been in a perfect hell of heavy bombardments by German artillery and German aircraft.
There were times when we sort of just waited to be either blown to hell or taken prisoner of war by the enemy, as after every move we made to a different position with our guns we were shelled heavily and, to make matters worse, the Germans would flank us on either side until we were almost encircled. There were masses of them all around and hundreds of aircraft to assist.
We have heard so much about our Air Force but we travelled over 500 miles in France and about 600 or more in Belgium and we only saw one lot of Spitfire (7 altogether). Admitted our Air Force was doing something somewhere but we were wishing they were with us!
Our final retreat was, of course, the worst of them all because of the Belgians laying down their arms and so opening the road and stopping us from reaching Dunkirk. We tried first to get to Nieuport but found when we were only 1-2 kilos away that “Jerry” had already occupied that town. We then had orders to get our gun in position and watch for tanks—we were in a garden and had the muzzle poking through a hole we knocked out of a wall. It was a farm we were in and the people of the house were in despair. They had several children with them. Our officers told them that their house and buildings were in danger of being hit by shell fire at any time because of our gun and eight others at intervals along the road. Our artillery were behind us and shelled the town hard. We had to be by the gun all through the day and did night guard over it in turn—one hour and twenty minutes per man.
The enemy had a machine gun not far away which they brought into action at night. It was a lonely job that guard at night, bullets were whizzing by, some hit the gun shield. We were badly shelled all the time but had to stay there. On one occasion the shells came so close we had to run for it—one hit a small building where a horse was and blew it to pieces.
Shrapnel was ‘flying about – and fell all around us. Another shell hit one end of the house and the tiled roof of the bam where we slept (when we had a few minutes), fell in just after I had gone in to get my water bottle! The navy gave them a shelling at night from the sea which helped us a lot. We held that place for three days before we moved out a mile or so back to another area.
The Germans had a huge observation balloon up the best part of the day and nobody seemed to be able to fetch it down. There were none of our planes to do the job. However, we were told to get our guns in a position to fire at the balloon. As you probably know these guns fire an armour piercing non-explosive shell (2 lbs.) at a very high speed.
They are effective at 1000 yards. Our Company Commander decided that he wanted to take a shot at it. He fired nine rounds and failed to bring it down. Then he said “Now run
for your lives.” I tried with another chap to bring away the box of ammunition
but we did not get far. They sent over a shower of shells and they were dead on. I threw myself on the ground and after the second one had burst a few yards away, got up and ran till I came to ditch where I dived in again. A whole side of a shell came and fell
beside me. It was an inch thick and solid steel about nine inches in length. It was very hot when I picked it up but I put it on the truck and wanted to keep it as a souvenir if possible.
After that shelling had died down we came up and sat on the roadside for a smoke. At about 8 p.m. we had to move again to another position. This time on a ridge in a field and our targets were German lorries moving about on the other side of a canal about 1700 yards away. Finally, masses of infantry started coming towards us so we fired at them and made them scatter. Then at 9.30 we pulled away from there having loaded our guns on their respective lorries. It was a long convoy and we were heading for Dunkirk.
Some of our infantry consisting of the 1st Battalion of East Surreys, some Black Watch and Gordon Highlanders kept the Jerry at bay till our convoy got away. It was a hell drive
to Le Pans (a fair sized town about 6 miles west of Dunkirk). A German plane had spotted us and as we entered the town, which was being shelled and bombed, we made a good target because of the several buildings and two trains at the station which were all blazing, showed us up. Our driver hit a big lamp standard in the middle of the road right on the promenade. Then came a blinding flash right on the truck behind ours and I was literally blown off our truck into the road. I crouched beside the rear wheel till brick and shrapnel had ceased to fall then got up and heard some yells and groans. One poor chap came and hung on to me—his left arm was shattered and bleeding fast. I gave him water from my bottle and with another chap went into the basement of a building for shelter. There were two killed and one with his leg nearly blown off.
To cut a long story short I may say that we had to walk along a shell swept beach for six miles. We arrived at Dunkirk in early morning where we saw dive bombers at work
on the destroyers which were carrying our men and the French to England. The beach was strewn with Belgian rifles, equipment, British lorries, cars, motorcycles in the sea, on the promenade in hundreds, some riddled with bullets, some burned to a cinder. I saw a big boat strike a mine not far out and sink in less than a minute. German planes were laying them from the air. They bombed the pier which was crammed with soldiers and I saw three British soldiers lying dead.
They followed our destroyer out into the channel,four bombers and three Messerschmitts and we were travelling at full speed, about 35 knots! Up behind came a bomber about 200 feet up! The gunner on the “pompom” gun opened fire and hit him in the right wing— a hole of fire appeared and, soon the plane was ablaze. It wheeled over and dived straight into the sea and disappeared. He brought two bombers down. All the other aircraft wheeled away and left us alone. I said another prayer that time.
When I saw the white cliffs of Dover I nearly wept with joy. H.M.S. Caddington did the trip in two hours. I had had only one slice of bully beef and about four biscuits in the last 48 hours and no sleep’ for that time either– no shave or wash for five days — sleeping was impossible and when we were able to snatch an hour or two we had to sleep with
full equipment including steel helmet boots and everything on. I never had my boots off at all for two weeks.
Dunkirk was the most awful sight as far as ruins were concerned that I ever saw. There is not a single building left standing. An awful sight everywhere—destruction is not
Well Governor, I expect to go on leave from here maybe tomorrow or Wednesday. We get 48 hours leave and then we come back. We are told that we may have another 7 days
later on. We went from Dover to a place called Tenby in S. West Wales for a few days—certainly a beautiful place. I enjoyed two swims there and lots of sleep. We came to this village yesterday from Wales and I am now back with our lot after being sorted out.
I forgot to tell you of the many homes in France and Belgium which were left in a few hours’ notice—all their belongings—furniture, radios, clothes and anything one may need to furnish a home, beautiful religious objects, cloaks, beds, silks, lace tablecloths, bedspreads, food, cigars, wine, crates of beer. On one farm we had to put our gun right in the house. We had to tear down a lovely mantle piece and hack through the wall so that our gun faced the front. It is a terrible thing war and it is pitiful to see the refugees pouring out along the streets— poor old women who can hardly walk.
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